As part of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, deacons and their families from around the world have been invited to make a pilgrimage to Rome for the Jubilee for Deacons from May 27 to May 29, 2016. The three-day event will feature meetings of deacons and their families to discuss the role of the deacon as an image of mercy for the promotion of the New Evangelization in the family, in pastoral work, and in the workplace. Participants will also have opportunities for pilgrimages to the Holy Door of St. Peter’s Basilica and to other Jubilee Churches where they can take advantage of eucharistic adoration and the sacrament of reconciliation. They will also receive catechesis on the deacon’s call to be a dispenser of charity in the Christian community and end with Holy Mass in St. Peter’s Square with Pope Francis.
The “Third” Degree
There are only three degrees, or orders, in the sacrament of holy orders: bishop, priest and deacon. The deacon exists to assist the bishop and the priests in the celebration of the divine mysteries. They assist at the Eucharist, distribute holy Communion, assist and bless marriages, proclaim the Gospel and preach, preside over funerals, and engage in various ministries of charity. Deacons serve in a diocese under the bishop and priests of the diocese. There are two expressions of this order: permanent, comprising both celibate and married deacons, and transitional, which consists only of celibate deacons who are proceeding on to priestly ordination.
U.S. Permanent Diaconate by the Numbers
14,588 Deacons active in ministry
79 Percent of the total number of deacons that are active in ministry
93 Percent of active deacons who are married
94 Percent of active deacons who are at least 50 years old
78 Percent of active deacons who are non-Hispanic whites
In 2014, roughly 451 new permanent deacons were ordained in the United States. At the same time, 295 retired from active ministry and 270 died. If 2014 is an indicator, new ordinations are not keeping pace with retirements and deaths.
According to a 2014-2015 CARA study, the Archdiocese of Chicago had the largest number of permanent deacons with 773. New York (490), Galveston-Houston (438), Los Angeles (432), and Atlanta (323) rounded out the top 5.
Source: Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) “A Portrait of the Permanent Diaconate: A Study for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops 2014-2015.
Origins and Decline
According to a 1998 Joint Declaration of the Congregation for Catholic Education and the Congregation for the Clergy, the service of deacons in the Church is documented from apostolic times. “A strong tradition, attested already by St. Ireneus and influencing the liturgy of ordination, sees the origin of the diaconate in the institution of the ‘seven’ mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles (6:1-6). Thus, at the initial grade of sacred hierarchy are deacons, whose ministry has always been greatly esteemed in the Church.” The Congregations go on to point out that St. Paul refers to them and to the bishops in his Letter to the Philippians (1:1), and he lists the qualities and virtues which they should possess so as to exercise their ministry worthily in his First Letter to Timothy (3:8-13).
The order continued to flourish in the western Church up to the fifth century. After this period, however, a slow decline ensued until it became simply an intermediate stage for candidates preparing for priestly ordination, i.e. only the transitional diaconate survived.
The Path to Restoration
The Council of Trent (1545-1563) actually concluded that the permanent diaconate, as it existed in ancient times, should be restored to its original function in the Church. This prescription, however, was not carried into effect.
It wasn’t until the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) that the stage was set for the restoration of the permanent diaconate. The Council in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) established this possibility. According to the Joint Declaration, there were three reasons for opening the door to restoration: (1) a desire to enrich the Church with the functions of the diaconate, which otherwise, could only be exercised with great difficulty; (2) the intention of strengthening with the grace of diaconal ordination those who already exercised many of the functions of the diaconate; and (3) a concern to provide regions, where there was a shortage of clergy, with sacred ministers.
Pope Paul VI acted on the recommendation of the Second Vatican Council on June 18, 1967. In his Apostolic Letter Sacrum diaconatus ordinem, general norms governing the restoration of the permanent diaconate were promulgated. A year later, the Apostolic Constitution Pontificalis Romani Recognitio approved a new rite of conferring sacred orders, which included the diaconate. Then, in 1972, the conditions for the admission and ordination of candidates to the diaconate were clarified in the Apostolic Letter Ad pascendum – the essential elements of which passed into the Code of Canon Law promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1983.